Staff Sergeant Gracie Medicine Crow knew the centipede was trouble. She had seen the brown, 12-centimeter-long creature crawl up, antennae questing in the air for whatever centipedes sought. “Animals won’t attack a human for no reason,” her mother used to say, back at along the Greasy Grass Creek in Montana. This centipede had obviously never heard that bit of tribal lore, because it crept up to her, stopping just half a meter from her face, before disappearing down her right side and out of view. Gracie had waited impatiently, knowing what would happen next.
Sure enough, a few moments later, a searing lance of fire struck her right thigh. Evidently, her bones (the armor inserts that provided protection by instantly hardening when struck by a projectile) didn’t consider a centipede’s massive pinchers noteworthy.
Who the hell introduces centipedes onto a planet? she fumed as she tried to keep still. Do they really fill some vital ecological niche?
Gracie had been in her hide for over 22 standard hours. That was only after a three-day insert and a fifteen-hour stalk to get into position, so she was not in the best of moods. Having a centipede take a chunk out of her thigh hadn’t improve that any.
And for what? She could observe nine SevRev terrorists lazing about their camp some 750 meters in front of her, but they didn’t look like a group waiting for the number-two priest of the entire Seventh Revelation sect. The SevRevs were a doomsday cult, anxious to bring about the End of Days, and they had perpetrated some horrendous acts of terrorism, so this was a priority mission—but a mission that Gracie was now pretty sure was going to be a bust. She hoped that one of the other three members of the operation was having better luck, if for no other reason that if one of them registered the kill, she could retrograde and get the hell off of this dust-ball of a planet. Gracie was competitive to a fault, and she wanted the kill for herself, but she’d cede it to one of the others if it would bring the mission to a close.
Without turning her head, Gracie’s eyes flicked off the SevRev camp and out past them to the north. Three klicks beyond the camp, Rancine would be in position, overlooking a SevRev security outpost. Rancine was her spotter, still just a PIG—a “Professionally Trained Gunman”—without a kill to his credit. He was a good kid, eager to learn, but she wasn’t sure he was ready to be off on his own. Without rock-solid intel, however, both Shaan Ganesh’s sniper cell and hers had to be broken up to widen the sweep. For the hundredth time, she wanted to break comm silence to check up on him, biting back the urge. At some point, every Marine sniper had to sink or swim on his own.
The fire in her leg simmered down to a dull ache as her nanos rushed the spot. They’d close off the bite and neutralize any venom, but they wouldn’t do much for the pain other than secrete some barely effective local painkiller. She couldn’t accept any system-wide meds if she wanted to be able to accomplish the mission—if it ever came to that.
She hadn’t felt another bite, so either the centipede didn’t like her taste, or it had merely been letting her know that this little piece of the planet was its kingdom, and Gracie was trespassing. If Gracie had to bet, she’d go with the taste. She was beginning to reek, despite the efforts of the best antiperspirant nanos the Corps could buy. It was a wonder the terrorists couldn’t smell her all the way down to their camp.
To most people, it would have been a wonder that the terrorists couldn’t see her as well. The SevRevs’ camp was well placed. With a lake at their backs and almost barren land to their sides and front, the terrorists had superb fields of observation, and the tiny fold in the dirt where Gracie lay didn’t seem large enough to offer any concealment. But at 750 meters, with a skill developed over years of practice and with the tarnkappe covering both her and her weapon, Gracie was virtually invisible to anyone at the camp. Any mistake, though, any sudden movement, could reveal her.
The tarnkappe was a great, if low-tech, piece of gear. It was passive camouflage, the type she favored. It essentially bent light, channeling it over and around an object. Gracie’s tarnkappe had light fibers running both lengthwise and widthwise, so she couldn’t be easily seen from head on or directly from the sides, but with any sudden movement, she could be spotted.
Gracie knew she could have stalked closer to her FFP, her Final Firing Position. However, the SevRevs, although not known for their investment in technology, still had rudimentary sensors that could be able to pick her out at up to 500 meters or so. With her M-23 Windmoeller .308, the Marines’ standard-round Sniper Rifle, she was confident of a kill out to almost two klicks.
Gracie had her Windmoeller’s bipod extended, buttplate resting on the ground, so she was not expending any energy supporting it. At 750 meters, her Miller Scope could just about read the labels on the SevRevs’ uniforms. If it ever became go time on this mission, Gracie thought it would be child’s play to take out the target.
She took a small sip from her water tube. After so much time in the field, she was used to the reclaimed water. It wasn’t much different than on ships, where all water was reclaimed, but as with a ship’s reclaimed water, the flat, processed taste did nothing to hide the fact that it had been urine only an hour ago.
Something brushed by her shoulder, and she almost startled. The centipede was making its way back up Gracie’s side. She had to will herself still.
Gracie could feel the centipede climbed over her right elbow. She tried to relax—her mother also told her that animals could sense fear, and that would make them aggressive. True or not, she didn’t want to take the chance. The creature was near her right hand, and she couldn’t afford to have her trigger finger affected by another bite.
Gracie’s discipline in a hide was one of her strong points, but she tilted her head up and over the stock of her Windmoeller, losing her cheek weld. She had to see what the centipede was doing. It kept crawling, a hundred or more pairs of legs working in a weirdly fascinating wave. It followed the barrel of her rifle, out towards the opening in the tarnkappe. Gracie let out a breath of relief as the centipede emerged from the tarnkappe, only to hold it again as the creature stopped to lift the front thirds of its body off the sand and rotate, its antennae going crazy. It turned to face back towards Gracie.
Don’t even think it!
But it did. The head section came down as it doubled back.
What is it with you? You want piece of me? Tell you what, big boy, that isn’t going to happen!
Supporting her weapon with her left hand, she thumbed the bipod lever, retracting its two legs. Slowly, trying to balance the chance of getting spotted with the ability of the centipede to scurry out of the way, she lowered the barrel of the Windmoeller. She pinned the centipede to the sand, her left hand too close to it for comfort. With its back pinned against the ground, the centipede rose back to attack the rifle. Gracie could hear the click of its mandibles as they tried to dig into the ceroplast handguard.
Gracie hesitated a moment. She didn’t consider herself a violent person—even with 51 confirmed kills to her credit—if that made any sense at all. The centipede was not her enemy. It was just trying to go about its life.
But Gracie was a professional, and anything that could affect her mission had to be addressed.
Plus, her leg was still aching something fierce.
She pressed down on her rifle, smashing the centipede. The front part of it, the section not trapped by the Windmoeller, spasmed once, then fell still, legs curling up beneath its segmented body.
Gracie glanced at the dead creature for a moment, then gave a mental shrug. Looking up, she couldn’t see any sign that her movement had been noticed. Ever-so-slowly, she raised her Windmoeller again and re-deployed the bipod. Using her scope, she checked each of the SevRevs in the camp. Nothing had changed.
Staff Sergeant Gracie Medicine Crow settled in for a long wait.
Five hours later, as the late afternoon sun beat down upon her, Gracie was still at her FPP and still under the tarnkappe. She took another sip of water, getting half a swallow before the tube collapsed in her mouth, empty. She had two more liters in her assault pack, but she’d have to wait for nightfall before risking being seen as she took one out and emptied it into her camelback. She’d have to wait for dark to break open a couple of energy bars as well. Hunger was a constant companion, but the emptiness in her gut was getting severe. Despite being on “butt-pluggers,” (which slowed down the digestive track), Gracie preferred to minimize her bulk intake on an extended mission like this one. When she was a PICS Marine during her first deployment, she hadn’t had to worry about human waste; the armored combat suits took care of all of that. As a sniper, though, human waste was a major consideration. . . and this was already the longest kill mission in her career.
It was pure coincidence that Gracie and Shaan’s two teams had been on a training mission with the Galeland militia when the op was called. Galeland was a sparsely-settled planet, barely terraformed, and with only a small and poorly-trained militia force. SevRev pockets were known to be on the planet, but they had never moved on any of the Galeland population centers. Still, both the Marines and the FCDC—the Federation Civil Defense Corps—had been trying to train up the militia so they could attend to their own security, so all four Marines were there on site when the mission developed.
Gracie had been rather enjoying the original training mission. As the senior Marine at the small militia base, she was in charge, and being out from under the flagpole back on Tarawa was a welcome respite from the daily grind of garrison life. The militia snipers they were training were a fun bunch, and Gracie liked their laid-back attitude. She was also acquiring a liking for their local “desert nectar,” a brew with a powerful kick that could sneak up on a person. Less than three weeks into the training, however, Federation Intel had somehow found out that the SevRev number two had arrived on the planet, and the mission was born. Gracie had immediately snapped from training into go mode. She was given four hours until they would be flown to the wastelands on the other side of the planet, almost an hour of which was wasted on the meson comms with Lieutenant Spicer, the battalion assistant intelligence officer and nominal sniper platoon commander. The lieutenant was a decent-enough guy, and he seemed to try hard, but even with the two-week scout-sniper platoon commanders’ course back on Tarawa, he was obviously did not totally understand what it took to be a sniper. Gracie gave all the appropriate “aye-ayes,” but this was her mission to run—the first multiple-team mission in her career. The lieutenant was half a galaxy away, and that gave her some leeway to do as she deemed fit.
Her hardest decision was when she chose to break up the four scout-snipers instead of leaving them in their two-man teams. With the intel they’d received, she knew they had too many potential areas to cover unless she sent each of them out solo. Even as it was, they only had a 66% of being where the High-Value Target would arrive as there were six identified locations. Gracie hoped the two potential spots that were left uncovered were the least likely.
With no action so far, Gracie was beginning to second-guess herself. If the intel was good and the HVT had not only arrived on-planet but was heading for a meeting in this particular area, had she selected the right four positions? She’d been pumped up to be the mission commander, but now the weight of command was weighing heavily upon her.
She glanced down at the body of the centipede. With her rifle back on the bipod, the body was fully exposed. The smashed back half was leaking a yellowish gunk that was drying on the sand. An ant had discovered the body, and while Gracie watched, it latched its mandibles on a leg and somewhat heroically tried to drag the huge carcass off. The centipede’s leg shifted in the ant’s grip, but the body didn’t move. It tried for over a minute, straining, its little legs sliding in the grains of sand as it pulled.
I know how you feel, she thought. Biting off more than you can chew.
The ant let go of the centipede’s leg and turned away. Within a moment, it had scurried under the edge of Gracie’s tarnkappe and disappeared from sight. Gracie knew it would return and with enough of its friends to haul the body away.
For some reason, that bothered her. She’d killed the centipede, and she’d admired the ant’s attempt to haul it away. But it didn’t seem right to her that the centipede would get cut into pieces and hauled down some dark hole.
She slowly dropped her hand from where it had been resting on the top of her rifle stock, just aft of the receiver group. Reaching out, she scrapped away a shallow hole in the sand. Once it was deep enough, she grabbed the dead centipede by the head, pulled it over, and dropped it into the hole. With a few slow sweeps of her hand, she covered it up.
Gracie figured the ants could come back and dig up the centipede, but still, she felt better.
She brought her hand back up, leaning her cheek on the fingers hooked over the top of the stock, and looked back to the SevRev camp—to see activity. She dropped the hand to the trigger assembly, leaning forward to be able to see through her scope. Three of the men were hurriedly taking down a makeshift awning they’d erected to give themselves shade. The rest had lost their air of relaxation and stood fidgeting with their hands and the tensed posture of soldiers waiting for something.
Gracie’s heart skipped a beat.
Could it be. . .?
Intel has designated the SevRev camp as a potential location of their HVT. That hadn’t made much sense to Gracie because the camp was out in the open, kilometers from anywhere else. The only unique terrain feature was the salt lake at the camp’s edge. The lake wasn’t a valuable resource; the water was almost toxic for any normal human usage. Intel had given it a 35% probability though, the highest on their list, and now, Gracie wondered if they had been right. Something was definitely happening.
By habit, Gracie picked up her firing cues. The planet’s constants of gravity, atmospheric make-up, and Coriolis figures had already been entered into her scope AI. She could go active and get current temperature and humidity, but she didn’t trust the convention that the SevRevs did not usually have passive sensors that could pick that up. “Not usually” could get a Marine killed. She could guesstimate the environmentals, and at only 750 meters, she thought that would be good enough.
If she fired and missed, she could go active for a second shot. Wind-speed would be more important than temperature, though. The intervening distance was mostly sand with very little vegetation. There wasn’t much to act as a telltale. Still, a few tufts of dead grass barely shifted near her, while at the camp, the sleeves of a military blouse stuck on a pack fluttered slightly in a breeze. One of the terrorists ran up from the edge of the water, zipping up his fly. He grabbed the blouse and put it on, but Gracie didn’t need to see any more. Near her, she figured there was less than 5 kph of right to left wind. At the camp, there was about 10 kph coming straight off the water.
SevRevs didn’t usually have full military gear. Still, the men at the camp straightened each others’ uniforms, as much as the hodgepodge of clothing could be so-called. Gracie felt more confident that they expected someone important.
She was feeling less confident when no one had arrived almost two hours later, and the men started to relax, sitting on the ground, sucking on stimsticks. Gracie had given up using the scope—her eyes could only take that for a limited time—and was back to leaning her cheek on her hand while she watched the camp with her naked eyes.
At some point, the mission had to be scrubbed. As the commander on the ground, she could take that action, but she wasn’t ready to yet. As long as there were terrorists at the camp, or at any of the other three positions, she was going to keep at it. Canceling the mission would be the call of whoever on high was running the show. As this mission was not initiated by the Marine chain of command, she didn’t even know who that was.
Despite the inner discipline that drove her to excel, Gracie’s mind had started to wander as she watched the camp, and it took a few moments for the change in the SevRevs attitude to register. The stimsticks were put back in pockets as they stood up and looked to their right, clearly on the alert.
Gracie took her eyes off her scope and glanced to her left, trying to see what had caught the SevRevs’ attention. The tarnkappe blocked her view, so she had to reach up and lift the edge.
Her heart lurched in her chest.
Bouncing down the dirt trail that served as the road alongside the lake were two old AR-Tracs, immediately recognizable from being depicted in almost every War of the Far Reaches flick ever made. Cheap and reliable, the armored vehicles were churned out in the millions during the war. They hadn’t offered much protection against determined enemy fire, but they could move troops efficiently, and mounted with various weapons, they could pack a decent punch.
Of the two vehicles making their way down the path, only the first had a mounted weapon. It was an energy weapon, that much was obvious, but Gracie couldn’t tell just what kind. Gracie wanted to swing her rifle around so she could scope the vehicles and see exactly what it was armed with, but that could give her position away. She wracked her brain trying to remember what the AR-Tracs carried, but the vehicle was made by so many different manufacturers and on so many different worlds, it could be almost anything.
She mentally urged the two vehicles to speed up. Her anxiety was rising along with her competitive juices, but anxiety was the enemy of a sniper. They had to be the cool, calm, and collected soldiers of popular culture. A calm sniper could make the shot; a nervous sniper would pull the round off-target.
They’re just coming to pick up their fellow SevRevs, she told herself in an effort to remain calm—even if she didn’t believe it.
Her senses told her Mr. Big was in one of the vehicles. Why he’d be coming to some God-forsaken meeting place out in the middle of nowhere, she had no idea. Maybe one of the bozos she’d been watching for the last day was another bigwig, and with all the surveillance arrayed against them, they thought a face-to-face was more secure. But out in the open, if it were him, they’d be in full view of any Federation Navy ship in orbit.
There wasn’t a ship of the line in system, though. However, the Galeland government had drones and satellites of their own, so a meeting in the open would still seem to be risky.
Maybe there’s something to the rumors, she thought, considering the persistent whispers about the central government being paid off by the SevRevs to look the other way.
That could explain why no Galeland population centers have been hit by the terrorists.
The waiting SevRevs were standing at close to attention as the lead vehicle reached the campsite, a puff of black smoke belching out its tail end as it came to a halt. Gracie quickly scoped it.
She still didn’t recognize the weapon, so she captured the image, then risked a quick link to her AI. Her scope was reasonably shielded, but not enough to escape possible detection from a sophisticated enemy. The SevRevs were not sophisticated, though, so she felt reasonably confident that they wouldn’t pick up the slightest milliamperes necessary to make the query.
Energy weapons were very effective in the vacuum of space, but in an atmosphere, the energy beams quickly ablated and dissipated. Gracie was 750 meters from the campsite, and that provided some protection, but there were more than enough mounted weapons that could reach that far. Without shielding, Gracie was more than a little vulnerable. There were weapons with less power could throw a jacketed energy charge, much like a grenade launcher that shoots the grenade long distances before it detonates. The energy-release of those rounds were limited, with an ECR from as little as five meters to as much as fifteen or twenty meters, but the weapons systems could throw those shells up to four or five thousand meters downrange.
The results from her AI were both good and bad. The trac was armed with a Gentry UE-113. The good news was that it was pure energy, a two-kilojoule plasma cannon, so at least it couldn’t fire a charged shell for longer distances. The bad news was that it was a powerful beast, and at 750 meters, Gracie was still at risk.
She now regretted choosing this FFP. She’d had another choice, a good 400 meters back that might have been out of effective range of the SevRev weapon. That was still well within her ability to make the kill with the Windmoeller.
It is what it is, she thought as she watched the back hatch of the trac open.
Five terrorists crawled out and stretched. Since it was a ground vehicle, not a hover, Gracie knew that the ride in an AR-Trac was rough, and that dirt road was not the smoothest surface possible, so Gracie couldn’t blame them for needing to get the kinks out.
She carefully scoped each one; none of them was her target—she thought.
Gracie might be the most celebrated sniper within the Corps, but she had never been on a live-mission with a specified target. She’d had several in training, to include her final stalk to graduate from Scout-sniper school, but in each case, she’d had an image of her target downloaded into her scope AI. For this mission, she was going in blind, or nearly so. With a nod to the suspicion that some in the local government could be in the pockets of the SevRevs, no image had been sent to her to disseminate to the other three Marines. She’d received a hand-written physical description on a piece of plastisheet, nothing more.
Gracie couldn’t even capture an image from her scope and upload it for conformation before taking the shot. Her scope AI didn’t have interstellar comms capabilities, and there were no Navy ships in system. If Gracie was going to pull the trigger, it would because she saw someone who basically fit the description.
One of the waiting SevRevs, the man Gracie had nick-named “Potbelly,” suddenly became the group the alpha, striding forward to the five who’d just debarked. With arms out, he hugged one of the men, then pounded his back. The rest of the men, both from the trac and the camp, gathered around those two.
Potbelly had never shown any indications that he was the top dog in the camp, but he radiated a command presence now that the others had showed up. Gracie looked again at the man Potbelly was hugging, but since he was tall and lanky, that man did not fit the description of her HVT.
Lanky broke their hug, then pulled on Potbelly’s upper arm, pointing beyond Gracie’s scope’s field of view. She immediately shifted her gaze to the second trac, just in time to see several men slip around behind it and out of her view. The briefest glimpse of white hair caught her attention. She shifted her sight to the front of the trac, ready to pick up the SevRevs as they emerged from behind it, but no one appeared. Potbelly and Lanky walked into view for a moment before disappearing behind the trac as well.
Gracie’s scope AI was recording everything. She ran the recording back fifteen seconds, then froze it just as she reached the spot where she had swung the scope to the second trac.
There! she thought.
Most of the man was blocked by another SevRev, but that white hair was bright enough to be a beacon. With the image frozen, she could see more of him. Judging against the trac itself, he was about 1.9 or 2 meters tall and cadaver-like skinny. He had to be the target.
Who is now behind the trac!
Gracie shifted the scope back and forth. The other men from the camp had stopped and were standing uneasily about 20 meters from the second trac. Four of the men who’d debarked from the first trac with Lanky were standing between the campers and the second trac with weapons lowered, but the alert posture that screamed bodyguard.
The entire situation was obviously tense, not what Gracie would expect from comrades. She wondered what it all meant. She was sure the spooks would be able to glean lots of information from her scope AI’s recording, but she didn’t have a clue.
Her mission was the HVT, however, not on whatever internal conflicts might be going on within the sect. She swung her scope back to focus on the rear of the trac. If this was a quick meeting, the HVT would have to make an appearance there to get back aboard his ride.
She went through her firing solution in her mind, three, then four times. She’d previously set up a range card in her mind, so she knew the range to a large, rust-colored rock at the edge of the water was 773 meters. The trac was forward of the rock, but offset to her left by about 20 meters.
That would make the aft end of the trac . . . about 788 meters, she calculated. Wind at the target coming from my 015 at 10 kph. . .
She’d already been locked onto where the SevRevs had previously put up their sunshade, but she re-calculated her firing solution. It wasn’t much different; she right-clicked her scope twice, glad to have made the adjustment before her HVT re-appeared. With her scope’s crosshairs centered just aft of the trac’s back ramp, she settled in to take the shot when it presented itself.
Only he didn’t show. After 20 minutes, her right eye began to water, and she had to pull back and blink. Leaving the Windmoeller locked on to where she hoped the HVT would appear, she looked alongside the scope, both eyes open. Which was fortuitous. The men from the camp suddenly became alert. They started forward, carefully moving past the security team and then stepping up to the trac. Gracie shifted her aim to the front of the trac just as Potbelly and Lanky emerged from behind it, Potbelly with one arm out beckoning his men in. Just at the edge of the trac, her HVT stopped, more than half of him still behind the bulk of the vehicle.
Come on, one more step, she implored silently, hoping for a better shot.
She was pretty sure she could still hit the HVT, but she needed a kill shot, one that put him past resurrection. With the SevRevs’ dedication to death and eagerness to suicide, Gracie wasn’t sure they would be philosophically able to justify resurrection, but her orders on that point had been clear.
But as the saying went, he who hesitates is lost, and Lanky stepped in front of the HVT, effectively blocking her shot. She caught brief glimpses of her target as he reached forward to shake hands, but even if she got a clear shot, at 788 meters, it would take her round slightly less than two seconds to reach the target, which was more than enough time for him to randomly step back or for someone else to step in front of him.
Keeping her cheek weld in place and her right finger on the trigger, she reached under her blouse collar and pulled on the plain green cord that hung around her neck. Hanging from it was a short-chambered .308 jacketed round collected by her spotter after her first confirmed kill, back on Wyxy—coincidentally another SevRev terrorist. She’d tallied six kills that day, but the important one was the first. Tradition was that all snipers had a round with their name on it, but by wearing her “HOG’s tooth,” collected from her victim when she first became a “Hunter Of Gunmen,” she controlled that round, and it couldn’t ever be used against her. It made her invincible. It was superstition, she knew, but that didn’t stop her from raising the round to her lips and kissing it.
And the God of Snipers must have been pleased with that moment of obeisance—for a moment, Lanky stepped away just as the HVT stepped forward into his last handshake. With his upper torso exposed, and knowing he’d be there for a couple of heartbeats to finish the handshake, Gracie squeezed off the shot, aiming for center mass. She cycled the next round and squeezed off another round just as her first tore into the HVT’s chest.
The Windmoeller normally fired a .308, 172-grain tef-sleeved round. This round packed a pretty good punch, still lethal out to possibly 3,000 meters if the shooter could somehow hit a target at that extended range. It was designed to punch through a body, though. The bullet expanded some upon impact, but a through-and-through torso shot might not cause enough damage to preclude resurrection. That didn’t matter on the battlefield, and in fact, it was probably desirable. Two soldiers evacuating a wounded soldier meant three out of the fight, whereas a permanent kill only removed one.
This mission was a kill mission, though. The powers-that-be wanted the HVT permanently erased from the picture. If the Marines had brought their Barrett light-fifties on the training mission, with their wide variety of tactical rounds, Gracie would have used one of them. But even with the Windmoeller, there was still a handful of different choices.
Gracie liked the mass and trajectory characteristics of the basic M21 round. But the M43 round, at 175 grains, wasn’t much different in external performance, and it had the added advantage of disintegrating into tiny shards that made hamburger of the human internal organs. The chances of coming back from that were far less than with the M21 round.
But still, that chance existed. To be sure, Gracie needed a head shot. Gracie had aimed her second shot on the ground where she thought her HVT might fall, hoping to luck out and hit his head. Instead, her round hit Lanky in the leg as he lunged to catch his falling boss. Falling over her HVT, he essentially became a human shield as the security team sprang into action.
Should have kept the M21, she told herself as she fired at Lanky, this time on purpose.
With the greater penetration of the M21, she would have had a good chance of punching through the SevRev and reaching the HVT underneath him. She hit Lanky in the middle of his back. She was pretty sure, though, that if the M43 round was doing what it was supposed to do, it had fragmented into tiny shards that chewed up his organs, but failed to pass through him to the HVT.
The few seconds since she fired her first shot were enough for the HVT’s security team to react. They were on top of her target as quick as any FCDC security troopers, pulling him towards the trac. Gracie snapped off one more shot at his limp body, but missing him, hitting and dropping one of the men holding the HVT’s legs instead just as they disappeared from sight.
Gracie switched her Miller to fully active mode. Range and environmentals flashed on the scope’s display. She changed her point of aim back to the rear of the trac, figuring the SevRevs would try and get the HVT back into the supposed safety of the armored vehicle.
Not supposed, she admitted to herself. Actual safety. My Windy can’t penetrate even that piece-of-crap armor.
Gracie did have a naga strapped to her weapons harness. The tiny rocket had the power to knock out a AR-Trac with a well-placed shot, but 788 meters was over three times the rocket’s effective range.
Her scope registered 787.2 meters. She’d been off with her calculations by less than a meter. The reports of rifle fire reached out to her. The SevRevs were firing wildly, and with nothing hitting near her, she didn’t think they had a lock on her position.
When the first two of the security team came rushing from behind the trac, weapons at the ready as they scanned for a threat, Gracie withheld her fire. She didn’t want them. A moment later, two of the SevRevs, holding the arms of the limp, face-down body of the HVT, appeared into her sight. They halted and pivoted as one more SevRev, holding the HVT’s legs, wheeled around to give them a clear run up to the rear hatch.
Stupid mistake, there, geniuses. You should have just shoved your boss in the hatch feet first, head first, butt first—whatever it takes.
Gracie fired at the closest of the two on the arms just as they moved to lift Mr. Big through the hatch. The shot took him a little lower than she’d intended, but it didn’t make a difference. He dropped like a rock. His buddy stumbled over him and dropped his grip on the HVT’s left arm.
This was her chance. Gracie could hit a ten-centimeter round target at 1,000 meters ten times out of ten—on the range back on Tarawa. This was not the range, however. This was on another planet, with different gravity and other environmentals. All of those environmentals were uploaded into her scope AI, so from a pure exercise in physics, the shot should be just as easy. But this was not simple physics. If it was, then anyone could become a sniper. Being a sniper was part mathematics, part physicist, part zen master, and more than a little part artist.
Combat was never the same as the training ranges. Forgetting the fact that thirteen or so SevRev terrorists were doing their best to locate her and take her under fire, Gracie had to deal with her own emotions and adrenaline, and these were the Achilles’ Heel of being an effective sniper. Excitement caused missed shots.
Gracie knew she had only moments before they SevRevs would untangle themselves and get her target into the trac. She willed herself to calm down, and holding the crosshairs of her scope about twelve centimeters high and to the right of the HVT’s head, squeezed the trigger, cycled, and squeezed again, slightly shifting her aim to the left.
She’d just recovered enough of her sight picture to see the first round skim the HVT’s head and into the hip of the SevRev who’d been on his left arm. A moment later, the second shot hit the HVT’s head dead on. Given the nature of the M43 round, there wasn’t the blast of pink mist favored by the Hollybolly flick-makers, but that wasn’t necessary. Gracie knew there would be no chance of resurrection.
Rounds stitched the dirt in front of her, not five meters away. Gracie ducked back, trying to get some cover. One of the SevRevs had spotted her, either by skill or luck.
Gracie switched on her active comms and said, “Murgatroyd.”
Her AI recorded her command, then relayed it out in a pulse to the other three Marines. Comms silence was broken, but it didn’t matter much to Gracie now. The SevRevs knew where she was.
Having given the order to commence extract procedures, Gracie had to figure out how she would comply herself. There wasn’t much in the way of cover for a good 300 meters behind her; beyond that, a series of washes could give her the cover and concealment she needed to exfiltrate. Gracie could low-crawl the 300 meters, but if the SevRevs pursued her, they could cover the intervening distance at a run before she could crawl any significant distance. She knew she had to either discourage them or at least slow them down.
Gracie popped her head up just enough to take a head count of the terrorists firing her way. Ducking back down before she was hit, she thought she’d seen 12 SevRevs. One was moving forward, yelling at the rest, his arm pointing right at her.
Gracie switched magazines to load the M21s. After chambering the new round, she gathered her legs under her, then rose for an instant, sighting in on the man and taking the shot before dropping back down. She hadn’t waited to see if she’d hit him, but long experience with the Windmoeller let her know that her aim had been true.
She shifted a few meters to her left, then rose again. Sure enough, her first target was down, another man rushing to his aid. Gracie acquired a new target and took the shot. This time, she was pretty sure she’d missed, but even a miss could make an enemy hesitate. She moved another few meters to her right and rose one more time.
“Poppy-Three, do you need assistance?” Rancine asked over the net, breaking his own comms silence.
Gracie knew that at only three klicks away, he could probably hear the sound of gunfire. Three klicks was a long distance to cover on foot, however, even if Gracie thought he could somehow help her without putting himself in danger. And by coming live on the comms, he had just let the SevRevs know there was another Marine out there. She had to get him off the air. She bent over and paused for a moment to respond.
“Negative. Murgatroyd,” she passed on the command net. “Murgatroyd.”
Suddenly, a mule kicked her hand, and her scope burst into a million fragments. The Windmoeller was knocked out of her hand and to the ground.
Either one of the SevRevs had enough time to acquire her and take a shot, or he’d just been pretty lucky. The round had been off-target to her, but it had hit her weapon.
She reached out for her rifle, gasping at the sharp pain in her arm, and pulled it in. The scope was a loss, shattered beyond repair. She released it from the rifle, letting go of what had been a 35,000 credit piece of gear, more than she made in eight months as a Marine staff sergeant.
It fell to the dirt as just so much junk.
She gave the Windmoeller a quick check. The weapon could be fired without a scope. It had a rudimentary set of iron sights, but the max effective range had just been reduced from over a klick to possibly 100 meters. There was a slight bend in the barrel, too, which Gracie would have thought was nigh on impossible. It did not portend well.
Several more rounds peppered the ground around her while she considered her options. She still needed to give the SevRevs something to think about before she tried to boogie out of there. And before heading directly to the extraction point, she had to break contact with them completely so they couldn’t follow.
She worked the action on her Windmoeller. It was still functional. She steeled herself to fire off a few more shots, hating the fact that each shot would be essentially blind. The old adage of “one shot, one kill” no longer was a possibility, and that pissed her off to no end.
But she didn’t have a chance. The SevRevs forced the issue.
Gracie hadn’t forgotten the UE-113, but in the press of taking out her target, then with the incoming fire, it had faded in importance. It moved to the forefront of her attention when the air around Gracie ionized as a bolt of plasma shot past her off to her right, missing her by a few meters.
If the trac had been armed with a meson canon, Gracie would be dead or incapacitated even though she wasn’t hit directly.
Immediately, she rolled to her right, stopping in the smoking earth. Two or three seconds later, another plasma beam blasted where she’d just been laying. she saw the smoking mound of what had been her Windmoeller, dropped when she rolled.
She knew from the data pulled up previously by her AI that she had 15 seconds before the UE-113 could fire again. So she was up and running, ignoring the kinetic rounds chasing after her.
I’ve got to get more distance between us and fast!
The UE-113 had a dual capacitor system which allowed for an initial two-shot volley, three seconds apart. After that, charging took progressively longer, with a second volley about 15 seconds later before slowing down to over a minute to recharge.
Forty meters behind her, away from the camp, there was a tiny ridge of sand, barely 30 centimeters high. That was Gracie’s target. She hoped she could make it, running in full battle rattle, before the trac could fire again.
Gracie hadn’t figured getting shot into the equation. The blow to her back sent her stumbling to the ground where she ate a face full of sand. She struggled to her feet, spitting out the sand as she lurched forward.
Her bones had hardened as designed when she was hit. The round hadn’t penetrated, but the full force of it hadn’t simply disappeared contravening the laws of physics. It was just spread out. Gracie was still in one piece, but a piece that would be pretty sore if she managed to survive of the situation.
Gracie searched for the tiny wrinkle in the sand, wondering if she’d been knocked off course by being shot. She expected to feel the hot blast of the plasma finger reaching out to her at any moment. Finally, she saw the ridge and lurched over it, diving to the ground. She lay there breathing hard for a moment before the sky above her lit up and the ionization burned her nose. She could feel the superheated air as it expanded over her.
She waited for the second shot, and waited. . . and waited. Off in the distance, she could hear a transmission change pitch. Either the trac with the plasma gun or the non-armed one was moving. Maybe to retreat.
Most likely not. It was probably coming for her.
Gracie waited for another ten seconds, hoping to see another shot so she would have some time to move while the trac’s cannon recharged. She knew she had to move as the trac’s big engines got louder.
“Mother save me,” she whispered, as she jumped up.
Instead of running straight away from the trac, she took off at an oblique angle.
Not two seconds later, the plasma gun belched out another finger of fire, superheating the air behind her. Gracie was sure the hair on the back of her head was singed as she tried to speed up into sprint while cutting back to her left again. She could hear shouts and gunfire behind her.
Gracie was a hell of a sniper and a hell of a Marine, but at 1.4 meters and 45 kilos soaking wet, she wasn’t the most physical Marine in the Corps. Her semi-annual physical fitness tests were an ordeal to her. But a dozen pissed off SevRevs and two AR-Tracs chasing her gave her wings. She flew towards the first of the washes, rounds zipping past her as she ran.
Somehow, Gracie survived the gauntlet to plunge into the first wash, a two-meter deep dry crevasse. She knew that the series of washes converged in the dry river bed a klick to the west, which in turn fed the salt lake after each heavy rain. She could follow the washes as they joined each other, but they led in the wrong direction away from her extract point. The SevRevs also knew where they led, and they could easily cut her off.
Instead, Gracie had to travel up the washes, losing their protection in another 600 meters or so as they got progressively shallower.
She wished she had a Navy ship in orbit to tell her exactly how many of the SevRevs were on her.
Hell, if I had a ship, I’d just have them zero anyone following me. Might as well wish for a PICS platoon, too, for good measure.
Gracie was too short to see over the lip of the wash, and where she’d jumped in was too difficult to climb, but the wall had collapsed about 20 meters away, so she ran to it and carefully climbed up just far enough to see who was on her ass. Back at the camp, one of the tracs was already 500 meters down the road, black smoke pouring from the exhaust as it retreated. The HVT’s body was probably inside with the SevRevs hoping for a resurrection. Gracie didn’t care about them—it was a futile hope, she knew, and that meant one less vehicle to run her down.
Of more concern was the armed trac over half way to the washes and the four SevRevs following behind it.
If she still had her Windmoeller, Gracie would take the time to zero each of the running SevRevs. They were in the open, and the distance was well within her capabilities. But once again, she might as well wish for a Wasp to come sweeping out of the sky to blow them to kingdom come.
Gracie took stock of her situation. She had her Ruger, of course, in her thigh holster. She had two toads, the small incendiary grenades. Either one could completely waste the trac’s engine block, but that would require a pretty accurate throw that Gracie had little confidence she could make. She had four frags, a tiny knee-popper anti-personnel mine, and the one naga. She felt naked.
Gracie was a sniper. With a rifle in her arms, she was invincible. No other sniper had as many kills as she had over the past ten years, supporting her deeply-set belief that there was no one better in all of human space, much less just the Marine Corps. But without her weapon of choice, she was just an ordinary Marine, and not a particularly effective one.
What the hell am I thinking? There’s no such thing as an “ordinary” Marine!
The trac was more than half-way to her. She figured she had a minute, maybe a minute-and-a-half before it reached the wash. She turned and slid down the wall on her ass, hitting the ground hard. She ran across the bottom, then scrambled up the other side. Keeping low, she squirmed her way behind a mid-sized rock as the trac’s engine noise got louder and louder.
Gracie pulled the little naga from her harness. Snapping the tube out, the fins deployed. A naga was just a 4mm rocket and it looked like a toy in her hands. But it had the power to take out a full battle tank if it hit the right spot. Gracie just had to hit one of those spots.
She flipped up the sights. Gracie hadn’t fired a naga since boot camp, more years ago than she wanted to admit. She was a firm believer in proficiency through continual firing, but other than qualifying with her Ruger and the Marine M99 Assault Rifle, her mission-centric mindset meant she fired with all sniper weapons in as many situations as possible. That did not include a naga or any other infantry weapons.
With the engine noise getting still louder, Gracie risked a glance around the rock.
The trac was heading right at her. If it tried to cross the wash, it would be ten meters from her. Not firing since boot camp or not, she should be able to hit it at that range. She felt a surge of confidence.
Shit! What’s the arming range? she suddenly wondered.
She’d known it at one time, of course, but a lot of water had gone over the damn since then. She pulled it up on her AI.
If she waited until the trac was ten meters away and then fired, all she would do would be to piss off whoever was inside. The naga would hit but simply bounce off, little more than the child’s toy it resembled.
And she had no time. The trac, so close it looked immense, pulled up to the lip of the wash, probably 15 meters from her. It edged forward, and the driver, with only his head poking out of his turret as he craned his neck, was probably calculating his ability to drive the beast into the wash. On top, the UE-113 slowly traversed back and forth as the gunner sought Gracie out.
Without consciously making a decision, as soon as the plasma gun was pointed to the east, Gracie stood up and bolted to the west. She took five strides before wheeling around and going down on one knee. She swung the little rocket up, right arm outstretched, left hand locked on her right elbow in her best boot camp firing form. The driver saw her—his eyes growing round with shock, his mouth open to shout—as Gracie pressed the release.
Like a hornet, the naga took off and flew across the wash, impacting right at the front skirt. There was a flash of light as the driver scrambled out of his turret. Gracie pulled her Ruger, and as he fell on his butt in his efforts to get away, she put three 2mm darts into his chest.
You should have ducked back into your trac, buddy.
Gracie had half-expected an explosion. Instead, there was a horrible clanking screech of broken metal and a gush of smoke and flame coming out of the exhaust, followed by silence. The trac was dead, but not destroyed.
The turret gunner inside was still alive. The UE-113 started to track back to her, and Gracie took off running. Sprinting to the west, she crossed over the finger of ground and down into the second wash. The plasma gun didn’t fire. She wasn’t sure if it was damaged by her naga or if the gunner hadn’t thought he had a good enough shot.
Gracie jumped into the wash, hitting the ground in a soft section of sand. That gave her an idea. She stepped heavily, making obvious footprints towards west before hopping up to the harder center of the wash. Doubling back, she ran to the east, towards the shallower end of the wash. She’d crossed the series of washes on her initial movement into her FFP, but that had been at night, and she hadn’t paid too much attention to the full breadth of the terrain feature.
Evening was approaching, but there were still a good two hours before dusk. Gracie wasn’t sure about the SevRevs’ night vision capabilities, but after the washes petered out, the land was a featureless pan for at least two klicks. If she emerged during daylight, she’d be certain to be spotted.
Which was why she hoped the SevRevs, if they remained after her, would assume she fled to the west.
With her Ruger at the half-ready in her right hand and a frag in her left, she trotted up the wash, nerves on full alert. When on a normal mission, Gracie had learned to control her stress, to remain calm. This was so far out of her comfort zone, however, that none of her tricks worked. She was as nervous as the proverbial long-tail cat in the rocking chair factory, ready to jump at the slightest alert.
She didn’t get far. Gracie had assumed the washes ran for at least 500 to 600 meters to the east before disappearing. Either she’d gotten mixed up, or this wash was one of the short ones. Within 200 meters, the bottom of the wash started to rise. Within another 100 meters, she could see it end, merging with the flat pan above.
For a moment, she considered crawling across to another wash, but she decided that was too risky. If she were spotted, she’d be trapped. And with the trac still sitting there like a pillbox, she couldn’t climb up into the flat pan to the east.
Instead, she turned back to the west, keeping low until she came to a small protuberance in the wall she’d passed a few moments earlier. She carefully backed up into the tiny corner, pressing her back against the dirt and knowing that anyone walking the wash on the high ground on the opposite side would easily spot her. But it was the best she could do.
Her best hope was that the SevRevs thought she had gone west. If that would occupy them for two hours, she could try and escape under the cover of darkness. So she stood there, thoughts running wild, as she willed the sun to go down. For the first 30 minutes, she expected to see a team of SevRevs come running down the wash at any moment. She mentally choreographed who she would take out first with the frag, then how to follow up to take out the rest with the Ruger. After an hour, she began to hope that they’d either given up, or they were so far down the washes to the west that they’d double back to the camp. She allowed herself to relax a bit, trying to conserve her nervous energy. After 75 minutes, she finally started to hope she was safe.
Which of course was tempting fate. She was doing a couple of deep-knee bends to keep her legs from going numb when the tiny sound of a skittering rock caught her attention. She froze in place, trying to identify the source of the sound. A few moments later, she heard another quiet rattle.
Galeland had been fully terraformed, so even if this corner of the planet seemed desolate, she knew there was animal life. She’d already killed a centipede and now wondered if one of the creatures was large enough to create the sound she’d heard, even as quiet as it was. There were rabbits back at the militia camp, but Gracie wasn’t a zoologist by any stretch of the imagination, so she wasn’t sure if a rabbit could survive in a desert.
The next faint whisper banished that line of thought; the very evident sound of a footstep reached her. Someone was carefully making their way down the wash.
Gracie thumbed the safety off of her Ruger and tried to melt into the wall. The same geological force that had formed the little lip behind which she hid had created a sister lip directly across the wash. That lip was larger than the one Gracie was hiding behind, but it curved more and offered less concealment from the west. Gracie stared at it considering her options, Ruger held tight to her chest.
She heard soft crunching near her, but when the muzzle of a UKI edged out into her view, only a meter or so away, she almost jumped. A moment later, a body followed, training the muzzle of the UKI on the space behind the other lip opposite Gracie.
It was obvious that there wasn’t anyone hiding there, but when the SevRev turned back to the front, he couldn’t miss Gracie.
Act, don’t react!
She lunged forward, reaching up to grab the long hair on the back of the SevRev’s head just as he realized his mistake. She yanked back with all her strength and brought the muzzle of her Ruger to the base of his neck, firing three times. Most of the sound of the hypervelocity darts was absorbed by his flesh, making a soft “thwock” that Gracie hoped no one else heard.
The SevRev didn’t even shudder as he fell. Gracie tried to hold him up, but his body slipped from her grasp and hit the ground with a thud and rattle of gear. Gracie froze, but there were no shouts of alarm.
Breathing heavily, she grabbed the heavy body, pulling it to the side. He was too big to hide behind the tiny lip of rock, especially sprawled out in a limp pile of what had been living flesh.
Finally, she gave up trying to jam him in there. Anyone coming down the wash now would see him from at least 40 meters away, and there was nothing she could do about that. She grabbed the SevRev’s UKI before slumping to the ground, trying to catch her breath. It wasn’t anything close to her Windmoeller, but she felt better having a long gun in her hands.
As the sun went down, the soft rustlings around her became more numerous as the desert denizens started to stir. Another centipede, even bigger than the first one, slowly made its way across the floor of the wash, crawling over the dead SevRev as it went along its way. Gracie didn’t bother it.
She listened and waited, but no SevRevs made themselves known. About twenty minutes after sundown, Gracie stood up, and—ignoring the dead SevRev—with one more glance down the wash to the west, turned around and started walking in the opposite direction. Five minutes later, the wash had gotten so shallow that even crouching would no longer keep her hidden.
It was now or never time. If the trac was still manned and it had night vision capability, or if the SevRev security teams were still watching for her and had the capability, they would see her. There wasn’t any way she would know until she tried. Gracie took a deep breath, stood up straight, and jogged out of the wash and onto the hard pan.
She imagined a neon target squarely on her back as she ran, expecting a flash of plasma to light up the night sky as it burned her into gray ashes. It wasn’t until she’d crossed the two-klick-wide shelf and reached the low hills on the other side that she finally felt safe. Her extract point had been downloaded into her AI, which was in gyroscopic position mode. She had another 15 klicks to go.
Almost two hours later, a tired Gracie slowed to a walk and activated her telltale. That speed wouldn’t pass her semi-annual fitness test, but she’d been up for almost three days, had fought for her life, and was beyond exhausted.
Three blue avatars immediately appeared on her monocle. Gracie felt a surge of relief that everyone had made it back and were waiting for her only 200 meters ahead. A couple of minutes later, she strolled into the rally point as the other three Marines gathered around.
Shaan gave the UKI a pointed stare that Gracie ignored, so he asked her directly, “So, how did it go?”
“You know. The usual. Killed me a centipede, though. That was exciting. Now how about activating the beacon so we can catch our ride out of this friggin’ desert?”
“You look like shit, Staff Sergeant,” Rancine said.
She rolled her eyes. Her left arm still hurt, and her back was beginning to ache from the round that had caught her. More than that, she was bone tired, and she didn’t need any of his crap.
I’m getting too old for this stuff, she thought, not certain if she believed it.
She was pretty satisfied with herself. Gracie was far from humble, but even with a critical eye, she knew that not many snipers could have completed the mission and made it back alive.
But now, her body protesting the abuse, she had to get some rest. Gracie sat, taking off her assault pack and using it as a pillow, lay down on her back, UKI clasped to her chest.
“Wake me up when the bird’s five minutes out,” she told the other three scout snipers.
Within a minute, Gracie Medicine Crow was fast asleep.
TO READ MORE ABOUT GRACIE, DOWNLOAD HER ORIGIN NOVEL, SNIPER.After a successful initial tour as a Marine rifleman, Lance Corporal Gracie Medicine Crow volunteers to become a scout-sniper, one of the deadliest—and most dangerous—military specialties in the United Federation Marine Corps.
Gracie comes from the Apsáalooke Nation, a people with a long history of military tradition. Small in stature and considered stunningly beautiful, she is often underestimated, but that merely drives her to be the best sniper in the Corps. Somewhat wary of her fellow snipers’ attention and interaction with her, she maintains what she considers a professional front, but one that is not as well received by others—and one that earns her the nickname of “Ice Princess.” A technically skilled sniper, Gracie feels her shooting should speak for itself. But being a scout-sniper is far more than simple marksmanship. If she wants a career in the Corps, she must learn not only teamwork, but how to be a leader of Marines.
This is the second book in the series, but each book is stand-alone and does not have to be read in conjunction with the others. The series follows two Marines and a Navy corpsman as they follow their individual career paths.